Uninvited Guests

“Night terrors again? You didn’t wet the bed did you?” There was the guilt. She was eight – “already,” as her mom put it. She didn’t need to wet the bed anymore; no one needed to wet the bed ever, she thought. Unless they were on fire. No one needed to have nightmares of the Shadow Man all the time, either.

“It was the same one. About the Shadow Man.”

MC’s mom waved a hand limply away at this before bringing it up to her coffee mug.

“It’s just a nightmare.”

MC sat dejected before her bowl of cereal. Since her dad left three years ago, her mom could only afford off-brand cereal in large plastic bags with crudely drawn cartoons on the front. She wasn’t very hungry but ate anyway – and fast – because even if it was all in her head, the off-brand cereal seemed to get soggy faster, too.

MC and her mom had been “alone” in their small cottage for only three years, although she heard her mom say on the phone that she was alone for the last ten years. She used to not understand what her mom meant when she told her friend Marta that her ex-husband minimized her. MC decided it probably was how she feels when her mom gets mad about bed wetting and dismisses her bad dreams. Like she isn’t important.

“That bastard will get what’s coming to him even if I have to do it myself,” MC overheard one morning.

“I might know someone who can help you with that,” Marta said. MC was six then. Her mom was really angry about her dad but she wasn’t entirely sure why. Something with money. “Aloe-money” she heard a couple of times. MC didn’t want her mom to hurt her dad, even though he left, because that was bad and she knew bad people went to jail. Who would she live with then? Marta? She hugged too tight.

MC just as soon forgot about it all until Marta showed up one night with another woman who she introduced as Kiva, but didn’t say whether or not she was a friend. Kiva had a book with her – as big as a bible – but it looked very old and had writing on the front in a language MC didn’t understand. In her other hand, Kiva carried a large bag full of things – some smelled strong, some not at all. There was a knife, candles, rocks of different colors, and some other oddly-shaped items that she never saw before. Kiva hoisted the bag up onto the kitchen table with a strong arm. 

“Hello.” She didn’t shake her mom’s hand. MC thought she was rude.

“Joanie, Kiva is here to take care of your problem. You know, like we talked about.” 

What was the problem? MC tried to think. Was it her dad? Marta’s voice was pitchy and a little nervous. Normally when she came to visit, MC could hear her mom’s friend boom full stories all the way to her room across the cottage. Apart from hugging too tight, Marta often talked too loud.

Joanie appeared alarmed at this somewhat-unexpected guest, but interest nonetheless. She pointed at the knife Kiva had just gently placed on the table.

“So, what? Are you a contract killer? Are we stabbing him? Because I am not going to jail. I just want what he owes… and maybe for him to be as miserable as he left me.”

Joanie’s eyes then fell to MC. She couldn’t understand entirely what her mom meant, but the stare she gave put a knot in her stomach and made her feel like she did something wrong. Kiva’s eyes soon followed Joanie’s to the small girl standing in the doorway of the kitchen.

“A child shouldn’t be around for this.”

“Why not? It’s all just hocus pocus.”

“We are helping you get what you want from a… darker source.” Kiva said this in a low voice, with a half-sigh. She didn’t seem too happy about being in their kitchen anymore. Maybe that’s why she didn’t shake mom’s hand, MC thought. 

“Dark energies are particularly drawn to children. A child should not be here. That’s all I’m saying.”

Joanie gave MC an indignant glance before looking back at Kiva. “Fine,” she said, before waving MC off in the same fluttering dismissal she knew so well.

“Go to your room until the adults are done. I’ll get you later.” 

MC didn’t reply, only stared back at Kiva and obediently turned around and left the three women in the kitchen. Once her bedroom door was closed, MC grabbed her pillow and comforter off of her bed and set up on the floor. Next to the door jamb, MC strained her ears to try and decipher anything going on down the hall. She clutched a bedtime book in her lap, just in case someone came in unexpectedly. She could pretend to read. 

After twenty or so minutes of nothing, MC smelled a combination of burnt-out matches and herbs creep under her door. It smelled like weird cooking, burning flowers, sharp, prickly scents that stuck high up in her nose. She put her ear to the door, but still couldn’t make out what was happening down the hall. All she could tell was one voice – probably Kiva – saying something slowly, followed by two other voices saying the same thing back. She sat a little longer and then jumped back at the sound of her mom scream. MC’s heart raced; she wanted to go to the kitchen but feared trouble, and feared whatever Kiva said about things wanting children. 

Instead, she cracked her door open and poked half of her face out into the hallway. Then she heard her mom talking very loudly,

“Maybe you could warn me next time! What are you, crazy?”

“It was only a drop of blood, Joanie.”

“Shut it, Marta. You didn’t have some witch stab you in the hand.”

“Finger,” Kiva corrected. “And that’s all the blood I require from you. For now at least.”

MC stood a moment longer in shock before shutting the door again. The click of the latch felt like a band of drummers in her should-be quiet space. She put her back against the wall and sat onto her comforter. 

“A witch,” she whispered to herself. Kiva was a witch. Did that make Marta a witch? Was her mom one? That wasn’t possible, she decided, they were Christians.

The only witches MC ever knew about at six years old were the ones on television during Halloween. She was a witch just the year before. And now there was a witch in her kitchen, stabbing her mom in the finger.

MC’s bedroom lights flickered off, then on once more before turning off for good. She gasped and yelped in, holding her breath. Her eyes adjusted to the dark with the help of the moon outside and the glow of the hall light under the crack of her door. MC rolled onto her belly and wrapped herself up in her comforter, and then placed her left ear to the floor. She focused to see under her door, and jumped at the shadow of two feet running silently across. She waited a moment before putting her ear back to the floor. Two feet again – swift and silent – ran back in the opposite direction. 

“What are they doing out there?” she whispered.

The shadowy feet stopped in front of MC’s door. She held her breath and watched, thinking her mom would open the door to find her spying on them. She’d just pretend to be asleep; her head was already on the floor, she was already wrapped in her comforter. An easy excuse. She watched the feet under the door shift weight impatiently before her doorknob began to shake back and forth. It wasn’t locked – MC wasn’t allowed to lock her door – but she continued to watch, although increasingly frightened, as the door handled shook and turned. After a few moments more the shaking stopped. MC felt clammy. Her throat was dry and she could hear her heart pound in her head, thumping off the floor. She didn’t dare move. 

“Mommy?” she squeaked.

The door began to shake violently on the hinges like a dozen fists were banging on it. MC leapt back into the middle of her room and screamed. In less than a minute, the door flew open to reveal a familiar face illuminated by the moonlight. Joanie was panicked and concerned, as a mom should be.

“What’s going on? Why are you screaming? Why are the lights out?” 

Joanie directed her attention from MC to the light switches next to the door. She flicked them each several times to no avail. With a huff of frustration she turned on her heels to leave the room again. 

“Why did you do that to me?”

“Do what?” Joanie turned around, confused. “Do what to you?” 

“Bang on the door like that. Why did you do it? It scared me.” 

MC’s mom softened for once, and she knelt in front of her child. “I didn’t do anything. I don’t know what scared you. Nothing is here. Your lights just went out.”

Another figure appeared in the doorway before Joanie. Kiva stood wringing her hands. They looked dusty and much older than her face. She then smoothed out the front of her skirt and twisted a couple of rings around her fingers.

“Did you open the door?”

“Wha – of course I did.”

“Not you, Joanie,” Kiva said. “Her. Did you open the door when it was banging?”

“No,” MC said.

“Well,” Kiva said, clapping her hands together, satisfied. “That’s one person in this house who did something right on the first try tonight. I’d better be going.” She turned to Joanie, “Expect results before the new moon.”

Joanie nodded. “Should I be worried about opening doors in my own house now?”

“Well, no,” Kiva began, “not the right doors.”

“What about my door? Who was banging on my door?” MC was still in the middle of her room, tears dried up on her cheeks.

“Just something we didn’t invite. You did the right thing by not letting it in.” She turned back to Joanie, “Really shouldn’t have children around for this. Put rosemary over her door.”

Joanie ignored Kiva’s instructions and said, “Sure, I’ll be sure to find a babysitter with all that alimony that comes in.” She gave a sneer at her guest.

“Right then. Rosemary. Don’t forget. Good evening, ladies.” Kiva turned delicately on her heels and back down the hallway. Within a minute or two, Joanie and MC heard the front door close followed by Marta walking down the hallway. She stopped in the doorway of MC’s room without going in. 

“Well,” she sipped, “that was nuts, huh?”

“What did you do, Mom?” 

“Nothing,” she paused. “Justice. Make your bed up and go to sleep. I have to check the circuit breaker in the basement and figure out what’s going on with these lights.” 

A small, six year old MC put the blanket and pillows back on her bed, illuminated by the moon, and crawled up to sleep. She still felt scared. Marta hung in the doorway, still sipping her wine. 

“You alright?”

“Was that lady a witch like in the movies? Is she bad?”

Marta let out a playful huff. “Oh,” she said, “that lady isn’t a threat. There are other things to be scared of.” She sipped her wine. 

“She stabbed Mom with a knife!” 

“Why don’t you just get some sleep?” 

MC frowned as Marta took a dismissive sip from her glass. She noticed, even in the dim hall light, that her mom’s friend had red-stained teeth. MC stared at Marta’s mouth until the lights in her room came up all at once, causing her to startle. 

“Is it on?” came from downstairs.

“Yeah,” Marta called back over her shoulder. “Goodnight, MC,” she said, and began to turn.

“No hug?” MC expected too-tight hugs from Marta with each visit, and she felt like she needed one after what happened earlier that night.

Marta only hovered in the doorway before leering a smile that seemed too wide to be hers. She put her wine glass to her lips and drank the rest in a large, deliberate gulp. 

“Good thing you didn’t open the door.” 

MC said nothing. Marta maintained her toothy smile. Too many teeth in her mouth. She turned delicately on her heels and became a shadow down the hall. MC didn’t know that was the last time she’d ever see Marta. She continued to watch fearfully at her open doorway until Joanie appeared. 

“Marta left already? Without saying bye? Bitch,” she said. “Goodnight, MC, sleep well.” She stepped into her room and gave her a kiss on the forehead. As Joanie turned to shut the lights off MC stopped her. 

“Just for tonight, please.”

“Oh, stop,” Joanie said, “it was all just some hocus pocus.” And she flicked off the lights. 

Dearly departed

Yelling out,

Where are you,

doesn’t make the dead return.

Yet you convince yourself

that the tingle on the back of your neck in the black

is more than just the ceiling fan.

You want to tell yourself that they returned through the steel veiled doors

but remember, you and yours,

When you’re kneeling –

Screaming –

Pleading –

On all fours –

They left in September and they’ve never left,

Always in the urn.

Dirty Secrets

The evening following her death was quiet. Too quiet. My dad sat on the floor of my grandpa’s living room, surrounded by heaps of papers and bills that my mom hid around the house during the last year of her life. I later learned through my own investigation into the mind of an addict that they’re particularly good at keeping secrets. My mom’s secrets were of a financial matter. She had a credit card no one knew about, bills left unpaid, stuffed into drawers here and there, and now my dad was sifting through all of it. 

It made sense to me, though, watching him look at old bills for the first time and have no idea who was responsible for them, or how they were so well hidden. That previous summer, my mom and dad were living with my grandpa who was recovering from surgery. My brother and I lived in our childhood home across town. One afternoon my mom called me and asked me to bring the industrial-sized jug of coffee to her because they ran out and she would rather die before ingesting instant decaf.

Dutifully, I made a pit stop to the kitchen and pulled out the jug. Behind it, my mom’s Minnie Mouse glass – a souvenir from our first family vacation to Disney World – sat behind it, half-full of clear liquid. At first, I thought it was a glass of water and thought it was very strange that it was in a food cabinet. I pulled it from the shelf and brought it to my nose. Vodka. How? She never drank vodka. 

I brought it up to her that same night. Her response was, “Don’t judge me.” I knew she was drinking vodka before she wound up in the hospital, before she turned yellow, before she forgot who she was. Yet, I said nothing, because she told me not to judge her. She told me to stay out of it, and that I wasn’t the parent. So I obliged. Partly out of fear and partly because I thought maybe if I kept her secrets she’d have more to tell me until there was nothing left to hide and maybe – when all other forms of avoidance were exhausted – she’d want to get sober.

It was uncommonly warm – the day after her death – and we opened all the windows in the front of the house, the ones facing the creek. I grew up accustomed to the smell of low tide, the oddly sweet, rotten, organic smell that rose up from the muck when the water receded. When we were little, my brother and I would blame it on the other as our parents drove us near the water. As we aged, we could pinpoint the difference between creek smell and a fart.

The smell at first wafted gently and slowly into the living room. I saw my dad wrinkle his nose a bit – especially since he was on the floor and the odor was too dense to rise up the cathedral ceilings in the cape house. My grandpa, whose diet consisted all-too regularly of things like Jarlsburg cheese and canned sardines, was unaffected. When the smell arrived to me, on the couch, it round-house kicked me in the face. Putrid, rotting organic smell. Human-organic smell.

“That’s shit.”

“What,” my dad began. Then, cut off by his own sense of smell, inhaled deeply and regretfully.

“Oh my god,” he said, “what the fuck is that?”

“Huh?” My grandpa finally looked up. For a moment, my dad and I thought he soiled himself and was trying to play it casual. 

“Shit, pop, shit,” my dad said to him. “It smells like shit.” 

Our attention turned to the four or five open windows that faced the creek. It wasn’t the creek, so my dad and I both got up and walked out onto the deck.

“I think it’s coming from the basement,” I suggested. 

My dad put on his sandals and opened the basement door only to be struck with the affirmation that yes, the smell of raw sewage was down there. Enough, in fact, to flood the floor and anything buoyant enough that once sat on the concrete was now adrift in a sea of poo. 

It was concluded that the influx of visitors over the last week to my grandpa’s house overloaded the septic system and backed up a combination of water and waste, creating an ankle-deep tide pool downstairs. My dad grabbed a Shop Vac and I recoiled to the couch. He called an emergency plumbing service to pump out the tanks and, within maybe three hours, all the crap was gone – except for the smell. 

“Look at this,” he said as he walked back into the house. I did not want to look at whatever he had in the bucket he was carrying. 

“They floated out from behind the dryer.” He tilted the bucket towards me and inside I saw several large, empty bottles of Absolut vodka. 

“Holy shit,” I said. Immediately, I thought back to the summer before, and how I wasn’t able to figure out how my mom was drinking vodka and keeping it from everyone. It all made sense. Laundry, chores, grocery shopping – she hid everything in plain sight.

Sober September

I’ve chosen to challenge myself to a Sober September. I am not an addict, nor do I feel myself heading down a path of dependency on substance. I do, however, feel like I need to clear my mind, body, and soul. And one of the easiest ways to do that is to eliminate things such as alcohol. Admittedly I have been experience a bit of anxiety and stress that leads me to look forward to my days off – more for the socialization than anything, but IPA is almost always involved. In my head, I don’t want to condition myself to start subconsciously associating days off-with-friends-with-booze. I should also make a note that I don’t get drunk every weekend, but I have a deep-seated insecurity that forming a habit involving a substance will turn me into my mother. September 26th will be eight years without her already, and I’d like to bring an awareness to the importance of healthy, conscious decisions.  

It all comes down to simply clearing my soul. It feels cloudy right now when I close my eyes and try to look at myself. I’m not a fan of that – not going to lie. I feel like I’ve been trying so hard to do everything at once that I’ve forgotten what to be grateful for. I kicked up so much dust and then complained that I couldn’t breathe, that I couldn’t see. When I went through my break-up this winter, and all the funerals, I went into serious overdrive by applying myself to whatever my desperate little tentacles could grab. 197 job applications (no joke. Wish I was joking. Not joking.), constant travel, minimal downtime; an injured animal wildly throwing its body around at whatever unseen force it senses in a last-ditch attempt to scare the being away. The being in my situation was (is) life. I got sloppy. I never stopped once this summer to think that maybe the thing in front of me was just my life, and my healing. I kicked around whatever I could as if I could outrun myself. I just assumed that life wasn’t good to me for a while so I was going to make it worthwhile on my own terms, and as a result I forgot about all the good that’s already there. I have been “self care” button mashing for months and it’s gotten me nowhere except gifted me more anxiety attacks. Self care is a slippery slope, because sometimes the things that are best for us don’t feel so great. Sometimes you need to stop and acknowledge you are hurt, that you are scuffed up, and that you’re only going to hurt yourself more if you don’t let the wounds be for a while. 

For September, I wrote down what I’m grateful for: 

  • I have a roof over my head that I’ve sustained on my own for over three years.
  • I have a wonderfully goofy, giant, loving puppy who challenges my patience and also forces me to socialize and exercise.
  • I have a job that pays me money regardless of how little each month I get to toss into savings.
  • I have passions like writing, painting, and collecting old books.
  • I have been able to be a good friend, and I have good friends.
  • This year alone I’ve traveled to three states, gone out of the country, and have a trip booked for my birthday week at the end of October – something not everyone is able to do. 
  •  I did not become my mother, and used her tragic loss and my experience with addiction to share my story and help others.
  • I’ve been in love, even if that love hurt me. 
  • I’m a damn good cook.

I am equal parts cynicism and hope.

Twenties

I thought my 20s

would be when everything 

made sense – 

I don’t know what I was expecting, though,

since my 20s began with the death

of my mother

and ended with the death 

of my limitations.

My 20s held funerary services 

of who I thought I was –

who I thought was worthy of me.

It was the death of ignoring myself;

My 20s ended with me coming to life.

Just Read

Just Read

I have been feeling hopelessly uninspired lately and also over-aware of other people’s actions, which is an obvious sign that I need to put on blinders and focus on my own shit. After my mom died I spent a solid three years deliberately judging people around me because bad things were clearly only happening to me and I had self-loathing tunnel vision. I questioned, why does everything bad happen to me? Honestly I don’t blame my past self for thinking like that. I still sometimes find myself, after a string of bad events, think why me for a moment. The difference now, though, is I learned to check myself.

As a former judge-y person myself, I know the primary reason I was so observant of other people and their actions was because I was absolutely terrified of taking a gander into my own life. At the time, I felt wildly out of control and didn’t even know where to begin to make things better in my bubble. Judging what other people do runs parallel to the saying, the grass is greener on the other side. It’s easier to judge your neighbor for how they trim back their rose bushes than to risk pricking yourself with thorns planting your own. My garden of life was an absolute disaster for so many years that I became accustomed to witnessing how other people landscaped their own lives. I preferred to live vicariously through my neighbors’ decisions and fantasized to myself how my life would feel if I did and lived the way other people did, without actually putting any effort into living.

When I used to put blinders on it would be to wallow in my own misery. It would be to emotional eat and blame the universe for everything bad happening as if I was special enough to be singled out by the creators of time, space, and existence, and be personally tortured for living. The long and short of it all is that none of us are that special – and with the magnitude of the cosmos in comparison to the size of a human life – we should be thankful that we don’t garner that much attention from whatever powers exist beyond our line of sight. But there I was, thinking how unfortunate my life was for turning out how it did by the time I was in my early 20’s, wondering when I was going to get mine, wondering when I was going to be handed a torch of happiness. Here’s another fun fact, the universe doesn’t give a shit what you think you deserve. We all have free will and that includes the free will to give up on caring about what other people are doing – especially when it doesn’t affect you, and focus on your own damn joy.

When I was feeling hopelessly uninspired in the past I would sit on Tumblr, or Instagram – or eat myself sick – as if any of those things would help. Social media presents itself to us like a hunk of deli meat that is incredibly convenient and also undeniably devoid of nutrition. It’s all fillers and flavor and everyone has indulged in it at one point or another. It doesn’t nourish us and it’s advertised to make us think we want it when in reality it’s just a bunch of weird odds and ends put together to come off appealing but is entirely unappetizing when separated and placed out individually. Now, when I’m feeling hopelessly uninspired, I read. Right now, I have Homo Deus out and ready to be devoured like a fat-ass Thanksgiving turkey my grandpa spent all day roasting. I have to set the table, carve it, serve it out, and enjoy it. I can’t judge other people when I’m learning. I can’t worry about what everyone else is doing when I’m expanding my lexicon. I can’t care about all the empty calories of society when I’m devouring something that will nourish and inspire me.

So to anyone a little (or a lot) in the dark – just pick up a damn book.